The fact that an ergonomic office chair has an important influence on health, especially for the back, is well understood by many people nowadays. Workplaces with height-adjustable desks are also increasingly recognized as another important element for employee health and correct office posture. But what about the actual organization on the desk? Is there a specific formula or specific tips for an ergonomic desk setup, and is there a similar impact on health when sitting and/or standing?
Definitely, an important key to good ergonomics lies in the organization of the desk area, which can also increase productivity in addition to health. In principle, eight different aspects should be taken into account:
- size of the working surface of the desk
- correct height of the office desk
- what does it look like under the desk?
- positioning of the monitor/laptop
- placement of mouse and keyboard
- illumination of the work surface
- organization of accessories and ergonomic aids
- movement and breaks
1. size of the working surface of the desk
Desks are available in a wide variety of dimensions and shapes. Providing an exact guideline is not as important here, because each person has different requirements and conditions.
An important consideration for computer workstations is certainly the depth of the desk, so that the monitor can effectively be positioned in accordance with correct screen ergonomics. Here, a depth of 80 cm (31.5 inches) is the goal, which is also a standard measurement for office desks. If the depth is less than 80 cm (31.5 inches), there may be space problems with the positioning of the monitor and at the same time there is a risk that the important work surface in front of you will be too occupied, making it difficult to have an ergonomic desk setup. Accordingly, deeper work surfaces, such as 90 cm (35.5 inches), offer an additional space advantage and thus promote an even more ergonomically compatible desk organization. The recommended width of an office desk is 160 cm (63 inches), but even narrower office desks can be considered to be ergonomically friendly. Here too, a wider office desk, i.e., 180 cm (71 inches) or even 200 cm (79 inches), promotes overall good ergonomics while contributing to correct office posture and optimal desk design.
Personally, I have an 80 x 180 cm (31.5 x 71 inch) office desk in my office and also in my home office, and I find I get along extremely well. Of course, both desks are height adjustable, with one being adjustable with a gas spring, allowing the desired height to be reached within a second. The other desk is electrically adjustable, which takes a little longer, but also ensures the desired benefit and promotes alternating work between sitting and standing.
2. correct office desk height
The height of the desk is dependent upon the height of the body. The smaller the person, the lower the desk. The same is true when standing, the taller the person, the higher the desk.
The optimal height is between 66 and 75 cm (26 and 30 inches) for most seated people. For standing, this is between 105 and 128 cm (41 and 50 inches).
A simple rule of thumb to set the optimal height and correct office posture is not based on a measurement but on the following:
For seated persons:
- The thighs should be horizontal or slightly higher than the knees
- The feet should rest on the floor and not hang in the air
- In this position, if you relax your shoulders and let your upper arm hang, forming a 90° angle with your forearm, your forearm should rest horizontally on the desk surface.
For people who work standing at a desk:
- Both legs should be parallel, and feet should be flat on the floor
- Relax the shoulders and let the upper arm hang, with the forearm bent at 90°. In this position, the forearm should rest horizontally on the desk surface.
With the method described above, you don’t need a ruler to find the ergonomically correct office posture at your desk.
You should really adjust the office desk height according to your height. My experience shows me that this is too often omitted because it involves a bit of work and therefore takes too much time, or the desk is simply not height adjustable.
I find the statement ” a bit of work and too much time” a dangerous argument, because for the trip to the physiotherapist, orthopedist or back specialist a much greater amount of time will be needed, apart from the pain one suffers. Those who don’t have time should set aside a window of time in their agenda to do so. Those who feel that they are clumsy or too weak to do such a job had better ask other people for assistance, and it is best to schedule this in the agenda as well.
If the office desk cannot be adjusted in height, you can always do the following:
The desk is too low:
- Place a block of wood or a brick under the legs of the desk. Make sure the office desk remains stable and does not create a tipping hazard. Often a few centimeters are enough to achieve the correct ergonomic height of the desk. This effort is worthwhile in any case.
The desk is too high:
- Use a footrest while sitting to work so that your legs are not dangling in the air but have a point of support. This relieves pressure on the thighs and potentially averts a blood circulation disorder.
If you cannot change the height of the desk in any way and cannot find a solution for an ergonomically friendly way of working, you should purchase another office desk.
In general, a height-adjustable desk is recommended because it promotes alternating work between sitting and standing. With this alternation, you can prevent back problems and also stimulate blood circulation. When standing and sitting, however, care should always be taken to adopt an ergonomically correct posture and not just to stand on one leg while bending the other or to sit at an angle in the office chair. It is an interplay between the person, the ergonomic equipment and the correct adjustment and posture to ensure an ergonomic desk setup.
3. how does it look under the desk?
Even with all the conditions for the correct height and size of a desk in place, still sometimes correct office posture is not guaranteed. In this case, take a look under the desk.
Sufficient legroom under the desk must be present at all times and no waste garbage cans, rolling containers, boxes, equipment or hanging cables should come into contact with your legs. Should this happen, you run the risk of an unhealthy posture, as the body instinctively turns away and looks for a way out, which in many cases turns out to be ergonomically unfriendly and can endanger health.
4. positioning of the monitor/laptop
In my opinion, one of the most important points for an ergonomic desk setup starts with the positioning of the monitor or laptop.
Make sure that the monitor is centered exactly in front of you, not too much to the left or right, but so that your upper body and head do not have to twist to look at the screen.
An ergonomic screen height is achieved when the upper edge of the monitor is about one finger’s width below the center of your eyes while looking straight ahead. You should test this in the position in which you will finally work and not in a mistakenly different sitting position when typing or reading.
You can easily achieve good screen ergonomics by stretching your arm and touching the monitor with your fingertips to determine the correct distance.
The same applies to the laptop or notebook, but it is precisely here that a great ergonomic trap lies in wait. My experience shows me that far too many people still place the laptop directly on the table and work like this for hours on end. This position in no way corresponds to an ergonomic screen height as the monitor of the notebook is too low. As a result, the head has to be bent forward too much, the shoulders tense up and health problems abound. Avoid this way of working and get ergonomic equipment for your notebook so that it can be placed on a stand. There are various notebook stands that are readily available for little money. This investment should be a must for anyone who works with a notebook on a desk or table for longer than 15 minutes.
Along with the purchase of a laptop stand, you also need an external keyboard and mouse, to ensure good ergonomics and efficient work. Here, too, I notice that such investments are often unfortunately not made, be it out of “laziness” or because “money has to be spent”. However, the suffering that most people could save themselves with such simple acquisitions is vastly disproportionate to such minimal, one-time expenses.
I also notice sometimes that the screen resolution, brightness or contrast of the display are not optimally set. Here, too, you should briefly take some time and check the settings. Test what feels comfortable for your eyes without being too dazzled or tired.
The display text size should be set so that working, or reading can be done effortlessly and without squinting your eyes. For the documents I edit, I often choose the zoom version and set it to 150%. This immediately makes reading feel more relaxed and is more ergonomically friendly.
Another tip for those who use bifocal reading glasses:
Position them well back on the nose and not too far in front, otherwise when reading the head must be directed too much upwards (to look down through the reading glasses) and thus tensions, neck strain and headaches can arise.
5. placement of the mouse and keyboard
Another important point for an ergonomic desk setup is the positioning of the mouse and keyboard to achieve the correct office posture.
Place the keyboard with the letter block centered in front of you. If you have a keyboard with an integrated numeric keypad, you will need to move the keyboard slightly more to the right to keep the letters centered in front of you. You should be able to type in a relaxed manner without twisting. The keyboard should have the same center axis as the screen.
Many keyboards are positioned too close to the monitor, forcing you to lean forward while typing, which can strain your shoulders and neck. With a notebook, this is unfortunately “standard” in many cases.
Place the keyboard in front of you about a hand’s width from the edge of the desk.
When typing, your forearms should rest on the desk and, if possible, on the armrests of the office chair. A wrist rest is highly recommended to keep your keyboard posture ergonomically friendly. Environmentally friendly wrist rests, made of millet chaff, are also popular here. An ergonomic keyboard, preferably an ergonomic wireless keyboard, is certainly also useful. You can find more information about this in my article, entitled “Does an ergonomic wireless keyboard promote well-being in the office?”.
Be sure to fold in the little feet at the rear of the keyboard so that your wrists bend less, giving you a more ergonomic keyboard posture.
When using the mouse, I often notice these two common errors:
- The mouse is positioned too far out, causing your arms and shoulders to twist outward too much, which can cause pain, tension and suffering. Use the mouse right next to the keyboard and make sure your forearm doesn’t open more than 90° to the edge of the table. This will save your arm from unnecessary movement.
- A normal mouse is not really ergonomically friendly and carries the problem that the wrist bends too much when using it. This can lead to tendonitis and other wrist pain. Here, too, a simple and inexpensive solution is a wrist rest, which ensures horizontal operation of the forearm and wrist. There are also wrist rests made of millet chaff for working with the mouse. An additional solution would be to purchase an ergonomic mouse.
6. illumination of the work surface
Regarding the lighting, you should prevent any kind of shadow formation on your work surface. The office desk should not be placed in front of a window, otherwise the light contrast will be too great, and your eyes will tire quickly.
Daylight is recommended, but in almost all cases this is not enough, and additional artificial light is needed. Indirect light is a good solution here, with wall-mounted spotlights or upright task lighting that emits light upwards and scatters it downwards as well. A blinding effect should be avoided in all cases. Good illumination is of central importance so that everything remains ergonomically friendly. With good illumination, you increase productivity when working.
Yellowish light tires you more than whitish light.
7. organization of accessories and ergonomic tools
You should organize your desk so that it can be cleared (clean desk) every evening and that everything has its own place.
During the day, have only the most necessary material on the table, such as pen, pencil and necessary documents. In some cases, a calculator, hole puncher, stapler or other small accessory may be added. However, it is advisable to put these back in their drawer after use, unless a permanent use is needed.
Ergonomic desk setup also has to do with tidy drawers. In principle, you should have only one piece of each item you need. So, a ballpoint pen, a highlighter, scissors, a tube of glue, etc.
Many years ago, we dedicated a half-day in our offices to clear out all the “excess office stuff” such as pens, storage boxes, and other small stuff that can accumulate in office drawers over the years. The goal was a clean desk and tidy drawers. It was shocking to see how much material was not needed, but only took up space. A tidy desk and well-organized office drawers can make work about 20% more efficient. I experienced this myself with my own office desk and can confirm that I really did increase my efficiency and have found it a great added value at the end of the day to have an empty desk.
The following five steps can also bring you to this goal, which can certainly significantly improve productivity and good ergonomics on and off the desk:
Use only one in-tray for new documents that come in during the day. Throw away all non-essential material immediately so that the in-tray is not overloaded.
- Desktop file sorter/organizer
All projects are given a number, which is recorded in a table of contents, which is placed at the front of the folder (with numbered dividers from 1-31). All projects are placed in this folder according to their numbers. In the agenda, you schedule a processing time for the individual projects and thus always have control.
- Presentation book with transparent sheets
In a binder with transparent sheets, you keep all important information, such as phone lists, account numbers, and other important notes. The goal is not to have sheets of important notes lying around. On the first page, create a table of contents so you can find everything quickly.
Position this book in your drawer or in a quickly accessible hanging folder so you can get to the information you need right away, even during a phone call.
- Magazines, documents to read
Anything you want to read once in a while, keep in a separate stack, such as one placed in a cubby hole of about 30 cm (12 inches) height. As soon as the 30 cm (12 inch) fills up, take away the lowest level and dispose of it in the wastebasket. This will automatically create new space for current reading material and avoid storage chaos.
- Office drawer
Empty your office drawers and put everything on the table. Keep only what is really needed and give away everything else. For each item you keep, give it a permanent place in the rawer. You can do this with foam that you cut to size or small cardboard boxes. Again, there are very clever solutions available for drawer organization. This way, you are very organized and never have to look for items again.
This additional ergonomic equipment can also facilitate your work and effect better productivity:
- Document holder
Place a document holder between the keyboard and the monitor. Place the documents to be processed on it, thereby ensuring correct keyboard posture and generally a correct office posture.
- Drinking glass or bottle
Water is the motor to better health. In general, too little water is drunk at the workplace. Therefore, place a drinking glass or bottle directly on your desk. This encourages you to drink; you only need to make sure the containers are constantly filled. It is recommended to drink a liter or more of water per day. Among other things, this also helps the intervertebral discs and detoxifies the body. Avoid any kind of sweet drinks and do not overdo it with coffee but try to stay faithful to water.
- Cable organizer
In order to keep cables organized, they should be tied together with cable ties. Here, too, there are interesting solutions that can simplify cable management and increase good ergonomics, especially with height-adjustable office desks and anywhere the cables conflict with the legs.
8. movement and breaks
Movement is one of the best cures for many office ailments. Therefore, move around as much as possible!
For example, place the printer so that you have to stand up to get to the printed paper. This will already give you some motion.
Alternating between sitting and standing is recommended.
Also build in short breaks on a regular basis. For example, you can climb up and down a flight of stairs or simply go outside and get some fresh air.
Also try to take a short walk after lunch. This helps the digestion and gets extra oxygen into the blood. Mental variety in and of itself can also trigger a positive effect.
An ergonomic desk setup inevitably has a significant impact on the health and productivity of individuals.
It is not as crucial whether you have the best height adjustable office desk, but that you have understood the concept of the entire ergonomic organization around the desk and thus can guarantee a correct office posture.
Certainly, the ergonomic equipment plays another central role, as well as the screen ergonomics, which are fundamentally important for any desk organization.
The key lies in the implementation of these described points, so that a better ergonomics can be experienced at the desk workplace.
If the topic of ergonomics in the office or home office appeals to you and you are interested in it more deeply, I can recommend my book “Wellness in the Office”. Combined with humorous drawings, I pass on 50+1 tips to make your office a little paradise.